Why we need to rethink and categorize ecommerce as gender-neutral
For generations, a majority of the world’s functions have been categorized or focused on binary genders, rather than being gender-neutral. This includes what people wear, the way they act, and how they shop. But with Generation Z (Gen Z) stepping into the world, traditional, societal gender norms are being argued and questioned. And there is a push for gender-neutrality.
“Their opinions on gender are reshaping societal norms,” Forbes said of Gen Z. And according to the publication them, 50 percent of Gen Z believe that the binary views the world has on gender are outdated and should be challenged.
Gen Z is not the only generation that has these views. The publication them also states that 56 percent of Millennials agree with Gen Z’s views on gender. With such a large majority of the population sharing these views on binary gender, the way we market and design for them needs to change.
In order to strip away fixed views, we must first understand how the younger population understands and views gender.
What is gender?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes gender as “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex.” This is not the only definition of gender, but many people agree with this or some version of this definition. Traditionally, people have viewed gender and one’s sex as intertwined. But members of Gen Z have a different perspective.
Gen Z sees gender as a social construct. Members of this age group believe that people should be able to choose their gender and that people should not be confined to two genders that traditional society has set.
Slowly, systems are beginning to accommodate this new consumer. But there is still a long way to go. Let’s take a look at how brands have traditionally considered gender in ecommerce.
Gender categorization examples
If you enter a typical clothing retail store, you might notice that clothing is separated by gender. It’s common, in places like a mall, for larger brands like The Gap to have separate storefronts for women’s and men’s clothes.
But gendered commerce applies to more than clothes. Another example is exercise equipment. Weights and strength products are often marketed towards men with huge muscles, with bodybuilders modeling the product in an industrial warehouse gym.
In contrast, items like treadmills and elliptical trainers are often advertised with a female model. The ad may perpetuate gender stereotypes: manly men exercise to get big and buff and women are cardio bunnies to get skinny.
Another example of gender stereotypes is used in marketing kids toys.
Typical stores often divide toys into “girls” and “boys,” sometimes using color to distinguish them. “Boys toys” are often in bright blues, greens, reds, and grays. Many of these toys are vehicles or technological devices, and toys idealize jobs like scientist, police officer, or firefighter. However, the color palette changes in the “girls toys” section. These toys are often pink, purple or pastel. They can involve beauty, dolls, cooking or cleaning.
The toys differentiate genders and parents may even judge children if they play with toys that don’t reflect their assigned gender.
These types of marketing strategies play into gender stereotypes that have traditionally existed in Western society. Continuing to exercise these gender stereotypes is harmful.
Gender categorization in ecommerce
Gender categorization happens on the web as well. The more obvious examples include apparel, where ecommerce retailers use gender to categorize clothing.
In the information architecture, designers choose how to categorize the content in order to organize it to make sense for users. In many ecommerce retailers, the top-level of categorization is gender. Users see the top levels in the navigation menu, because it is an easy way to see the site content.
It is less common to see gender categorization in the top level of an information architecture outside of apparel. Some examples that do this include baby goods, makeup, and department stores.
Incorporating genderless language
Gen Z and challenging retailers to move away from gender binary into a new era of gender concepts. Ideas of multiple genders are not new. Many cultures around the globe have ideas of a third gender. In somr Native American cultures there is a concept of the “Two spirit.” Two Spirit individuals would take on tasks and jobs of the opposite gender than the gender assigned at birth. According to the Indian Health Service, Two Spirit people were very successful within their tribes. Other cultures that believe in third genders include India’s Hijras, Mexico’s Muxes, and Thailand’s Kathoeys.
New interest in gender inclusivity can be traced to the beauty industry. Fenty Beauty, a beauty brand founded by artist Rihanna, released 50 different shades of concealers in its first launch. This addressed the pain of having to match skintone to limited palettes, a problem that heavily affected people of color. Not only did this line feature skin tone inclusivity, but it also featured gender neutral modeling choices. The brand showed that makeup is not just for cis-gender women. Fenty Beauty’s huge success has prompted many other beauty brands to follow suit.
So how can companies start incorporating a genderless language? It may seem impossible to build an entirely new system of viewing gender, but the systems already exist. It’s just about refining and adapting them.
Let’s look at apparel and how designers can make it gender-neutral.
When we look at how clothing stores like Nordstrom or GAP are arranged, it first appears to be female and male. Gender is the primary division, but under each primary category are subcategories like swimwear and athletic wear. These sections are neutral. So why do we inject gender into this, when we could easily remove the gendered sections and still have this organization or separation?
The same could be said on the digital side — products or services do not need to be separated by male or female, but instead could be grouped by interest.
Gender inclusivity on the web
In fact, gender inclusivity in the digital sphere is just as important. Traditionally, gender had two choices: male or female. These genders are presented to narrow the scope of products, leading the user to their destination quicker. However, for gender non-conforming users, this categorization limits the products they want to see. These users may feel alienated or uncomfortable choosing one or the other.
Another example is in online forms. And where users need to appear in person after selecting “male” or “female,” it can create friction when the user does not present fully as their assigned gender. Users may worry if they will face discrimination.
Designers intend forms to create a personalized space, like a social media profile. But gender binary choices can alienate non-binary users. This can turn a reflection of oneself into an uncomfortable misrepresentation.
In all cases, it creates a situation where the user is unable to, or feels uncomfortable with the gender choice. This is especially when asking for gender is unnecessary to the process, such as signing up for social media, or buying a product. Compounded microaggressions like this turns users away.
Gender inclusivity in forms
In order to make forms gender-neutral and more inclusive , designers should use language that is welcoming, clear, and assuring. Please note, designers should avoid asking demographic information unless absolutely needed.
In the example below, the left form requires users to provide the answer to the question with only three options: male, female, and prefer not to say. This may confuse the user, because could be asking for sex, and not actually gender. The form also doesn’t tell users why this information is being taken from them.
On the other hand, the right form uses gender-friendly language to ask users about their gender. Users could easily skip this question, choose multiple options, and write in an option if it is not provided. To reassure users, the form offers a tooltip on the bottom right explaining why this question is being asked.
The limitations set by gender often lean into sexist ideas about “male” and “female,” such as the case of a doctor unable to continue buying plane tickets because the “Dr.” suffix was incompatible with the “Female” gender designation. Limiting products and services by a gender binary can bring narrow concepts of what constitutes “male” and “female.”
As mentioned earlier in the example of the exercise equipment marketing, the stereotyped gender of each persona is intrinsically linked to a specific ideal body type and lifestyle.
Gender inclusivity starts before design
In the world of UX, we first try to identify our target market by creating personas. However, this could be the first place of embodying stereotypes. Professor Nicola Marsden mentions in her article that UX and usability researchers often check their data for gender differences, and usually find none. We can conclude that gender differences do not exist, or we can conclude that other factors are playing a role and affect outcomes.
Either way, creating user personas that rely on gender and their stereotypical roles could add bias in the design process, ultimately excluding users that do not fit into the gender that you have applied to your user persona. Instead of gender, we ought to stress overarching topics such as skills, goals, knowledge, dreams, mindsets, environment, and situations. Afterall, users are not one-dimensional creatures that are identified over their gender.
While some brands use a gender-neutral line as a marketing ploy to earn recognition or to stay relevant to Gen Z, others go gender-neutral because it is the decent thing to do. Everyone deserves clothes that make them feel comfortable.
The true path to gender-neutral and inclusion is through conscious learning, mutual understanding, and empathy — we must grow and evolve with the community to provide the right fit between them and the experience.
Last but not least, here is a great resource for adapting gender-neutral language to your system.